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grumpy at grasmereDave’s presentation is slick, professional, official-looking, but also transparently sham, like Dave’s bling watch. First up the asking price for the Ford Focus Dave is selling is not the actual asking price. I must add £100 in order to cover “administration fees”. This, explains Dave, in a voice that now rings disappointingly dull with rote learning, is for peace of mind. It will yield indemnity against any outstanding finance on the car.

Excuse me? You mean there’s a possibility you may be selling a car that has outstanding finance owing, and to which I will be liable if I buy it? Dave fluffs his next lines, stumbles a little, moves on to another slide:

Unreliable things, cars. They are expensive to repair. Astronomical prices, are charged for every day things like clutches and brakes and cylinder heads. What I need is a warranty. But does the car not come with a warranty, Dave? Is the car likely to be so unreliable I will have need of it? Have you not checked it out in your extensice workshop facilities? Plugged it it into your main-dealer computer what’s-a-ma-gig?

The car comes with a basic and entirely useless three month warranty on engine and gearbox – things that are unlikely to be a problem on a three year old car. This does not inspire much confidence in me. No, what I need, says Dave, is a proper warranty, for which I must add another £500. I do not want this, and tell him so. I tell him I am not interested in any more “extras”.

By now the light is going, the sky clearing further to a cold cobalt. Meanwhile the cars inside the dealership shine beautifully. The sweet, squeaky clean scent of their tyres is exquisite. A sparkly-black Mustang rotates smoothly, soundlessly, on its plinth. This is the higher end of the motor business, and not without its allure. They don’t wear Trilby hats and sheepskin coats in here. They wear nice, business-like suits and learn their patter from highly trained sales-trainers, whose learning in turn is built upon the killer-psychology of Freud.

In a moment, and in spite of my discouragement, Dave will be urging me to have the paintwork of the car protected with a special, armoured gunk – protected against bugs and tree sap. Now, I’ve never had a problem with tree sap. I admit it can be a nuisance, leaving unsightly blobs on the car, but hot water and shampoo generally does the trick in getting rid of it. I wonder if car paint is not what it used to be – I mean if simple washing, or rain will nowadays dissolve it, without resort to this expensive protective coating clap-trap. Dave’s next slide does indeed warn against the perils of tree sap. Protecting against ice-cream on the seats is also, apparently, essential.

By now I have lost track of the extras, but estimate we’re up to about a seven hundred pounds. Do punters so routinely accept such an easy rack up, I wonder, that they should form part of the salesman’s daily patter? I suppose when paying by monthly instalments, on finance, it might not sound like much, an extra twenty quid a month or something, but I am an adherent of Grandma’s Stern Economic Principles – I save up for what I want, and pay cash. To me seven hundred pounds is seven hundred pounds. But punters like me, paying cash, are not that welcome in such high-bling places as this. Why should we be when with a finance deal we’ll pay thousands more for the same car, over the term of the agreement?

And still there is no word on the trade in value for the Astra. I have been at the dealership for an hour now. I’m growing a little tired, and couldn’t care less about the Ford Focus I once fancied any more, have no interest in taking it out for a test-drive as the light bleeds away and we approach rush hour. I am being flim-flammed, polished up for a mug, and I wonder if Dave knows that I know this. Certainly nothing in his patter suggests such a heightened degree of self-awareness. He jabbers on heroically, if still a little woodenly.

Finally, and as if by magic, the trade in value appears on Dave’s computer screen. The offer is £1000. But I have already ascertained from my trusty Autotrader App that £1650 is a fair minimum price. In all good conscience, I mentally deduct £300, knowing a repair on my car is necessary, but Dave and I are still some distance apart. I tell him his offer is too low. So Dave, who is my friend, and doing his best to protect my interests, sets out to tackle his boss again. This takes another ten minutes. More coffee is offered. Refused. The boss comes over.

This is an older guy, late fifties, jowly, crinkly-faced, dark suit, undertaker grey – a mark of his seniority. Certainly, he talks a higher level of tripe than his minion, and at the speed of an auctioneer, talks at me for what feels like an age. I can barely understand his diction – Shakespeare this is not – more Lear possibly, but I have no interest in it, am no longer listening. Instead, I nod politely, wonder if we are heading in the right direction, wish the jowly guy would cut to the quick, because by now I’m seriously wanting a wee. I almost miss the punch-line. Sorry, what was that? The deluge of rapid-fire tripe equates to an extra £50 on the trade in. Did he really think it was worth such an effort? An Oscar nomination perhaps, but £50, please! The insult is accepted, digested. This is business, remember, not personal.

The main-dealer experience is not without its interest, if you’ve the stamina for it – mainly in the observation of unusual human interaction, also the rather unsubtle and amusing psychology of flim-flamming. Perhaps I have become too unplugged over the years to respond normally to this sort of thing, and instead quietly record the absurdities of it in my mental notebook. It may reappear in a future story, whole or part, or maybe just the characters.

But by now I can no longer remember what the Ford Focus I briefly sat in looks or feels like, and I really don’t care. Indeed I feel like I’ve been in prison, subjected to an intense and craftily contrived interrogation. I will be happy if I never see another Fuc*%ng Ford Focus, or a squeaky dealership again.

I shake Dave by the hand, thank him for his time, because it’s business-like and the polite thing to do. Then I walk out into the early evening darkness and freedom. The sky is luminous, beautiful, streaked over by a single orange vapour trail, a planet sits low in the west, a steady white light. A star to guide me home.The Astra starts at the first touch, as it always does. There’s a clatter from the camshafts at low revs while we find our way out of the dealership, but I’m getting used to that now. She warms quickly and settles down to a familiar sedate hum as we motor home, and all without a single warning light on the dash.

In spite of its litany of faults, both past and present I’m feeling it’s still a nice car to drive, this 07 plate Vauxhall Astra, and may be worth hanging onto for a bit longer, even at a venerable 93,000 miles. I just need to bite the bullet and get it fixed. Again.

Never give your car a name. It makes it all the harder to part with.

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grumpy and friendHe’s an expensively coiffured young man, good suit in pale grey, a quality cloth, fashionably narrow tie. His watch is cheap bling though – gents dress-style in a thin chrome plate – more a case of show over quality. All right, perhaps I’m being a bit uncharitable, but I have a thing about watches; I notice them, and his is already an unfortunate omen. We shake hands in the foyer of the squeaky clean car dealership, and the game begins. My new friend is called Dave.

The dealership has easily a thousand cars, and a dozen well turned out young men like Dave to sell them. The place is so vast he struggles to find the one I’ve seen on the Autotrader App – a ’12 plate Ford Focus with Zetec trim. It has the innovative 1.6 Ecoboost engine with Powershift transmission, asking price £8400. Dave scuttles across the lot, in search. I follow.

It has rained heavily all day –  not a good day for looking at cars, not a good day for inspiring the good humour necessary for bridging the inevitable gap between dealer and punter’s expectations. But just now there’s a more optimistic opening, the greyness turning to white, a wider blue emerging. Gulls screech in from the waterfront. We’ll see.

This moment comes around once every seven or eight years for me – the hunt for a new(ish) commuter mule, a mule with minimal miles on the clock, in exchange for one approaching six figures. I normally avoid the main dealers because they’re such hard work – preferring smaller independents who are equally avaricious, but generally waste less time with Powerpoint presentations and beating about the bush. Still, today I’m open to the experience, and it’s been a while.

We find the car. It’s a pretty looking thing from a distance, a little smaller on the inside than I’m expecting, but has a nice feel to it. I circle it in the age old fashion, and with an eye trained on appraising the risks in much older cars than this. Dave stands to one side, spares me his patter for now. A good sign. I’m not expecting to find much on a car this age, but then I’m clocking damage to the bumper on the front nearside, and a serious gouge in one tyre that looks to me like it’s been kerbed and run flat for an irresponsible period of time.

Dave assures me, breathlessly, the car has passed its MOT, otherwise the tyre would have been changed, meaning they’re not going to change it now. But only a fool would drive any distance with a tyre in that condition, MOT or no. He admits the damage to the bumper is unsightly, that it will be “put right”, but by now I have lost faith in the dealer’s attention to detail and expect they’ll simply slobber some touch-up on it, and let it go at that. Shades of Tressell’s Philanthropists comes to mind, and philanthropist, at least in the Tressellian sense, I am not.

The sun goes in, a cold wind whips up, and my optimism dissolves. Thus far I’m unimpressed. But I’m polite. The car still has an enticingly low mileage at just 10,000, and may yet redeem itself in the details of the deal.

Would I like a test drive?

I suggest to Dave it might be better if he looks at my car and gives me a price for trade-in first, then we can see how far apart we are. No sense wasting time on a drive otherwise, is there? I’m not sure I’m what he’s expecting from a punter, or trained to expect, but I’ve bought more cars than he’s sold, spent decades of my youth at the grungy end of the trade, and am myself trained to be unimpressed by glossy language. When dealing with cars it is not sentiment but money alone that speaks, and invariably with a tongue that is severally forked, regardless of whether we are dealing with the grungy, or the glossy end of the trade. It’s not personal; it’s just business.

As for me, my car, “Grumpy”, is ailing, but Dave doesn’t know that, and dealers never offer what a car’s worth anyway, so I’m not feeling too guilty about it. I will not sell it to a private buyer knowing it needs repair, but to a dealer? A dealer is different. Experience assures me they are about to take serious advantage of me, so am already compensated to some degree by the knowledge my vehicle has “issues”, as I already know has theirs. It’s not personal; it’s business. The rules of utilitarian economics work both ways.

Dave gives Grumpy a good going over. An official-looking but entirely superfluous tick sheet is filled in. On appearances at least, old Grumpy cannot be faulted – full service history, four good tyres, and a tidy body. However for all of his efforts, Dave explains, he cannot give me a price directly, that he must consult his boss. This is expected, and part of the game. And it will take time – wearing down time. Coffee is offered, refused. I’m fine, I tell him, and settle in for the long haul. I have been here before, and know how it works.

At some point the punter finds himself at the dealer’s desk, while the dealer goes away to consult his boss. Now, I may be a suspicious old punter but believe one is wise to be circumspect under such circumstances, especially if accompanied by wife or other confidant. By all means talk to your confidants now about the weather, or about how beautifully presented the dealership is, but under no circumstances must you discuss your finances, and especially not your bottom line for trade-in. As shocking as this might sound, dealers have been prosecuted for eavesdropping. I don’t know if the practice still goes on, but one should be aware of the risks.

Trade-in deals are a black art – some might say a dark art – and in my experience follow not the simple guidelines of such optimistic wonders as the Autotrader App, nor less the punter’s naive expectations. One must expect, in fact, to be insulted. It’s just a question of how good a mood you’re in that dictates whether a deal will be closed or not. But before all that must come Dave’s Powerpoint presentation.

Already I’m sensing I will not be buying this car, not unless Dave comes up with something to shatter my boredom, because my mood is sinking and I can be a serious depressive. To be sure, it isn’t looking promising for Dave at this stage, as the “full dealership experience” renders numb my bum, and takes on the air of something more Pythonesque. It is only a grim sort of curiosity that keeps me seated now.

The afternoon slides away to a wintry dusk.

And the presentation begins,…

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barrow

Once upon a time I bought a house. It had been in my good lady’s family for generations, passed through the hands of several elderly relatives, and by the time it came to us it was in need of modernisation. One of the first jobs was to install double glazing. This required us to endure the peculiar methods of a long line of double-glazing salespersons, one of whom I remember, sat me and my good lady down in our front room and subjected us to a couple of  hours of death by Powerpoint presentation – or what passed for it back then.

His windows were terribly expensive, and we were so bamboozled by his convoluted facts we had no way of deducing if those costs were justified. What was also puzzling was that if we agreed to the installation, and then ten years later, on a certain day, if we rang a certain telephone number, we would get all our money back. What? Get our windows for free? How does that work then?

Whatever the merits of this scheme, we were so cross and impatient by the end of this presentation, I’m afraid to say we bundled the man out of the house without so much as a cup of tea. His departure was hastened, I recall, by my equally frustrated son, then about eighteen months old, hungry for his bedtime story,  hurling Thomas the Tank Engine books at him as he went.

The next salesman was a pony tailed, oily, orange tanned sort of man who drove a bright red sport’s car. My good lady was already bristling when he stepped over the threshold and he hadn’t said anything yet. But his speal was much more succinct than the previous chap – just a quick measure up, a brief explanation of the style and construction of the windows, then a straight forward price. I was astonished and relieved by how easy the process had been this time. I was astonished too by the price because it was a fraction of the other quotes we’d had, but now I was wondering to myself, how on earth they could do it for that? There must be a catch! Darn it, what shall we do?

I left it a few days, in the hope my intuition would guide me through what was quickly becoming a bit of a minefield, where logic and reason were no guarantees of avoiding a ripoff. So then I had the idea of  telephoning the pony-tailed salesman and politely asking him if I could just confirm a few facts about his windows – thinking to discover the catch as to why they were so inexpensive. But it was as if I’d insulted his mother. He became rude at once, even aggressive – calling me stupid, that I had sat for an hour while he’d explained all of this and now I had the gall to ring him up and ask the sort of basic effing questions I should have asked him before, when I’d had the chance,…

Yes, indeed. He was very rude. But I sensed something else was going on here, something I couldn’t see, something lurking under the surface, and rather than take his tone personally, get all cross and hurt, as perhaps I should have done, I took a step back inside myself, puzzled, and I tried to see the bigger picture.

There’s the story of a king who goes by night in disguise to seek the counsel of a humble monk. While in the presence of the monk the king assumes an air of deference, while the monk, a happy-go-lucky, ragged, impoverished character, teaches the king the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then one night the king says, okay I’ve got all of that, but what I’m really struggling with now is this concept of the Ego. What is the ego? What’s that all about? At which the monk laughs, apparently in disbelief, and says what kind of a stupid question is that?

Of course at this point the king drops all pretence, calls the monk rude names, says he’s just a destitute monk and how dare he speak to the king like that? To which the monk says, now that, your majesty, is everything you need to know about the ego.

Returning to my rather more prosaic story about the double glazing salesman, I don’t know what caused that momentary gap to open up between what should have been my natural reaction of hurling back some retaliatory insults, before slamming the phone down and fuming in hurt and humiliation for the rest of the day, and what I actually did, which was to make a calmly reasoned guess at the likely truth of the matter:

He’d made a terrible mistake in the price he’d quoted me for those windows – and as far as commission went, all he’d be getting was a good telling off from his boss for the error. His only hope of recovering his position was if I didn’t take him up on the offer, which was by then already legally binding on his firm – so he insulted me, thinking to lever up the lid on my ego and give it a good slapping, then my ego would tear up the quotation – after all a sale lost was better than a sale he couldn’t afford. I thought about it, but then I took a risk that this peculiarly egoless entity I’d discovered lurking inside of me wasn’t too far off the mark; I forgave his bad language, and accepted his offer.

Double glazing companies come and go, proving like nothing else the Buddhist adage that all forms are impermanent. The firm who offered me that money back guarantee after ten years folded after just two – so I don’t suppose their magic money-back telephone number is still working now. The one that actually fitted the windows did better,  lasting around five years, but at least the windows they fitted are still looking like new after – oh, it must be fifteen years now.

I did see the pony tailed, orange tanned salesman again – he came to make some final measurements before the windows went in. I won’t say he had that tail between his legs, but he was a little sheepish. He did however have the good grace to apologise for his rudeness on the phone. I mumbled something about it being okay, that it sounded like he’d been having a bad day, and not to worry about it. He didn’t mention the price and I didn’t rub it in.

I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I trust he’s found a way of moving on. I’m sure there are those who enjoy manipulating egos in order to get what they want, but it sounds like a tiresome business, and dangerous too because a roused ego can cause a normally placid human being to become physically violent. But it can be dangerous too in that every now and then you’re going to come across someone who’s ego’s too sluggish to be of much use in your machinations, or it’s like smoke and only vaguely there at all, because then they might see through you and the best you can hope for when that happens is that someone genuinely lacking in ego would never think to hurt you.

Of course that I can look back on all of this and still feel a smug glow of satisfaction proves my own ego isn’t quite so far beneath the surface as I’d like to make out. I’ve a long way to go then along the path of spiritual realisation – sure I know that – but in my defence I’d also argue it’s better to have begun the journey even if I’ve got nowhere at all, than not realise there’s a journey to be made in the first place.

So, beware, once you start to lose your mind, you’ll discover there’s potentially as much wisdom to be found in ordering double glazing, as there is in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, that even men with orange tans and red sports cars can become, for a time, your most important gurus.

Good night all

Enjoy yourselves, but stay safe.

Michael.

 

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